War: Theater review by Adam Feldman
What the characters in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s War have is a failure to communicate. Roberta (a graceful Charlayne Woodard), the matriarch of a well-to-do African-American family, is in a coma following a stroke. As her body lies silent in a hospital bed, she drifts through a limbo populated by apes (including one played by the excellent Lance Coadie Williams) as she grasps to assemble a sense of who she is and who she’s been. Meanwhile, her children—the driven, judgmental Tate (Chris Myers) and the defensive Joanne (Rachel Nicks)—fight about how to deal with the crisis and with two German-speaking strangers, Elfriede (Michele Shay) and Tobias (Austin Durant), who claim to be their long-lost relatives.
War’s structural plan, well navigated by director Lileana Blain-Cruz, toggles between realistic family drama and metaphysical, metatheatrical monologue. The play’s violence is emotional and rhetorical, not literal, and derives from tensions about race and class; the playwright’s sharp voice resonates above those of the individual characters, who register semi-symbolically. (Elfriede’s name contains the German word for peace.) Like Jacobs-Jenkins’s An Octoroon, War pokes the audience with racial discomfort—in this case, by playing with culturally loaded simian themes. “Aren’t we all descended from a bunch of monkeys in Africa!?!” says Joanne’s white husband (Reggie Gowland) when Tate lashes out at him. Awkward as that moment is, it may come close to expressing what War has to say about forgiveness, generosity and family. The race it’s most concerned with is the human one.—Adam Feldman
Claire Tow Theater at Lincoln Center (Off Broadway). By Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz. With Charlayne Woodard. Running time: 2hrs 25mins. One intermission.
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